It is night. The first rain band has enough wind gusts to knock out power lines and Internet links.
Bee County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Willow and more than a dozen personnel are plunged into darkness.
The building’s generator kicks in but, with no phones and no Internet, the group of men tasked with handling an emergency for the county’s 32,500 residents might as well still be in the dark. All the computers, the software and all the programs and dependent upon an Internet connection, as is the phone system.
Cellphones? Not likely. When a hurricane strikes, the cellphones usually are the first to go.
Fortunately, there is another method of communication: amateur radio. The command center is equipped with amateur radio transceivers — obtained by a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Thanks to the efforts of a few — they say too few — license amateur radio operators, Willow and his team can communicate by voice, email or fax to Corpus Christi or, if necessary, internationally.
“An amateur radio is one of the most basic pieces of equipment that we have and most time overlooked,” Willow says. “If we lose the Internet, we are almost cut off from the world.”
The communication problem has been evident for the last four weeks when the county’s new phone system, which sends calls over the Internet, all but shut down — without the help of a hurricane. Communications countywide were affected, prompting commissioners to meet in a special, two-day, multi-session to address the issue (See BEE-PICAYUNE Aug. 6).
To help bring the command center’s amateur, or “ham,” radio operation up to speed, Willow agreed to host a class for those interested in obtaining their FCC amateur-radio license.
The classes were taught over three Saturdays in July. Two from Beeville passed the tests.
Willow also took the class. His new call sign, which later will be displayed in stained glass in his office, is KG5DKE.
Beeville volunteer fireman and certified instructor Joe Rugar taught the class — his first. His father, Fred, handled promotion. Both are Beeville amateur operators.
In an emergency, Willow can count on four operators to man the EOC’s amateur radio station.
“Trouble is,” Willow says, “to handle 24-hour shifts in a protracted situation, I need more like 30 operators.
“Fred Rugar has been a pain in my side since I got here,” Willow says, who assumed responsibility for the office in late February.
“Mike saw the need for the station, helped us get the antenna mounted and allowed us to use the command center for the classes,” Fred says.
There should have been more, he says, citing the dozen or more amateur radio operators in the county listed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). “I sent a letter to every one of them. But, no response. So, we’re starting from scratch.”
One member of the class who passed his test is 72-year-old Ray Martin, now known as KG5DKD.
He brings 39 years of experience in law enforcement, firefighting and as an emergency medical technician.
“I had a high school buddy who was a ham, but I never got around to it until now,” Martin says. “Between a paper route to the Civil Air Patrol to teaching dancing in the military, I couldn’t work it into my schedule.”
He pauses for a second.
“Then there were the girls, too.”
Fred views the recent class as just a start.
“I want to put amateur stations at the sheriff’s office, at the police department, another at the fire house, one at the ambulance service and one at the hospital.”
He also says the EOC’s antenna is not that secure, citing the need for more guy wires to reinforce it during high winds.
“But if the antenna goes down, all we need is 135 feet of wire and we can put another one up in about 10 minutes.”
Although Fred started Joe working with electronics before he was 10, Joe tries to counter the fear in some that to obtain a license requires an extensive electronic background.
When solid-state integrated circuitry in transmitters and receivers replaced tubes, the role of the ham as repairman diminished.
Joe taught a 90-year-old from Refugio in the recent class and has seen a 6-year-old get his license.
“Having three out of five people pass the test is a good percentage,” Joe says.
Joe and Fred are planning additional classes, including one with Boy Scouts.
We’re not going to give up until we have a good group.”
Bill Clough, who has repeatedly tried to obtain his ham license since he was in junior high, is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com